Letter From Maho Beach

 

Note to readers: The following piece was written a couple of months ago. Rather than post it right away, I kept in the queue. The plan was to run it some time in September, after the summer reading lull. Then, just as I was getting it ready, Hurricane Irma hit. The island of St. Maarten, along with much of the Caribbean, was devastated by the storm. The very beach that is the subject of the article has been all but obliterated, and the airport was badly damaged. I sincerely hope that running the story now does not come across as disrespectful or in bad taste. The intent, instead, is to have it read as a tribute. Our best wishes go out to the people of St. Maarten.

 

September 21, 2017

IF YOU’VE SPENT any time on the internet, you’ve seen Maho Beach, the thin strip of sand and surf abutting Princess Juliana International Airport on the Caribbean island of St. Maarten.

St. Maarten — or St. Martin — is part French and part Dutch. Princess Juliana (SXM) is in the Dutch section, and Maho sits just off end of runway 10. And when I say “just off,” I mean only a few hundred feet from the landing threshold. As arriving planes cross the beach, they are less than a hundred feet overhead. For an idea of close this is, you can check out any of a zillion online pics. Like the one above. Or this one, or this one, or any of hundreds of YouTube videos. Unlike so many other scary-seeming airplane pictures you’ll come across, they are not retouched.

Thus, planespotting at Maho beach is an experience unlike any other in commercial aviation. Not that you need to be an airplane buff to enjoy it. For anybody, the sights, sounds, and sensations of a jetliner screaming overhead at 150 miles-per-hour, nearly at arm’s reach, are somewhere between exhilarating and terrifying.

How and why, exactly, are hard to understand. Is it the sense of danger, maybe? Or just the sheer novelty of it? Whatever it is, I felt it this past summer, during my first-ever flight into SXM. I landed a Boeing 757 there, coming in over Maho at about 2 p.m. on a perfect afternoon. It was fun being at the controls, but at heart, I didn’t want to be flying the plane. I wanted to be under it.

Our hotel was just around the corner, and as soon as I could I changed into a swimsuit and a t-shirt, and headed over.

The beach itself isn’t particularly pretty. It’s small, hemmed in between a pair of unattractive restaurants. The water is turbid, and there’s an ugly, two-lane road at the top of the sand. But that’s not the point, I guess. There are better places to swim, but none with a view like this one.

SXM isn’t a busy airport. Only a dozen or so jets land each day, and the nearby hotels and bars post the arrival and departure times. I was staying at the Sonesta, and they had a placard in the lobby listing the day’s flights. People tend to cluster whenever a plane is due — especially when it’s one of the widebodies coming in from Amsterdam or Paris. Air France brings in an A340. KLM was flying the 747 into SXM for years, but recently switched to the Airbus A330. The A330 is significantly smaller, but still breathtaking when it’s close enough to scrape the top of your beach umbrella. Charters from Europe are common too, using A330s, 787s and other heavies.

I didn’t get to see any of those during the 90 or so minutes I spent there. I saw only smaller jets — a 737 and a couple of A320s. Still it was exciting. At Maho, pretty much any airplane gets your adrenaline going. And the noise will shake your bones. I also got to watch the same 757 that I’d brought in, piloted by the outbound crew, take off to the roar and applause of onlookers.

My landing at SXM wasn’t the smoothest one, if I can be perfectly frank, which I partly blame on the excitement of flying there for the first time. Procedurally, though, it was little different from landing anyplace else. The media will often speak of the Maho Beach experience from the perspective of the airplane — and wrongly so. Planes are described as “swooping in low,” or “low-flying,” or coming in at unusual angles. I found an online article describing SXM as “one of the world’s most dangerous airports.” Another cites the “risky approach” that pilots make to the runway. The Guardian writes that pilots are “forced to approach at low altitude.”

That’s just baloney. The runway at SXM is short, but there’s nothing different or unusual about the approach to it. The altitudes, speeds and angles that we fly all are normal. There happens to be a beach at the foot of the runway, but that’s the beachgoer’s concern, not ours.

And I don’t say that lightly. Jet blast and wingtip vortices at Maho routinely upends people and sends their belongings skittering into the ocean. Or worse. This past July, a 57 year-old woman from New Zealand was killed there after the blast from a departing 737 slammed her into the ground. The takeoff threshold of runway 10 is even closer to the shoreline than the landing threshold, and the tails of departing jets practically throw shadows over the sand. And the fact it was a little-old 737, and not a larger aircraft, attests to both the power of jet engines and the proximity of the beach. Check this out.

The woman was among a group of thrill-seekers who’d tried hanging onto the perimeter fence as the pilots throttled up. Hurricane-force thrust from the engines then slammed her into the pavement. Although she was the first fatality, several others have been injured over the years after recklessly grabbing onto that same fence — some of them sent tumbling head-first into one the concrete barriers that line the roadway — despite the presence of signs warning people to stay clear.

“Hurricane force thrust” is an apropos way of putting it. Earlier this month, Hurricane Irma wrecked much of Princess Juliana International, flooding the terminal, destroying a jet bridge, and scattering debris across the aprons and runway. Maho Beach has been empty, and will likely be that way for some time. The airport remains closed.

 

PHOTOS BELOW BY THE AUTHOR

 

Top-of-page photograph by Fyodor Boris

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24 Responses to “Letter From Maho Beach”
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  1. Michael says:

    One of my duties while stationed in Germany, circa 1971, was to deliver troop manifests to RhineMain/Frankfurt airbase. My shortcut took me across the end of the active runway. At night on foggy winter nights I was sometimes surprised by a Lufthansa 707 at 50’over the top of my vehicle. The landing lights lite through the fog made the area glow.

  2. Ad absurdum per aspera says:

    Here’s a silly question. Doesn’t that runway, from that direction, have you landing with a tailwind? (My (mis)understanding is that the island is in the trade winds and usually gets ten or twenty knots ranging from the northeast or the southeast.) Why not operate from west to east — terrain obstacles? noise considerations? Or have I got it all bass-ackwards?

    As for deliberately standing there, I can think of about a thousand better things to do on a tropical island vacation than expose myself to conditions that would call for personal protective equipment at work, but de gustibus…

  3. Rod says:

    As an aerogeek, I’ve naturally watched many a video of this place. One that doesn’t fit the usual profile is this one of a Westjet 737 so low on final approach you can see a pool of jetblast following it as it goes around. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yNhAYKM-7LQ
    Now That would have been a Real spectacle if it had somehow managed to hit the water.
    I ain’t crossin’ no Atlantic just to go to St Maarten, but the Greek island of Skiathos is somewhat similar, though I suppose there are no heavies there at all.

  4. Mark says:

    looks scary to me, i wouldn’t try it. The best I can offer is being in a Boston harbor tour boat that stopped for a few minutes off a Logan airport runway. There were low clouds that day, planes would seemingly appear magically, cross above us, and land. Sometimes they were not lined up too well and the pilot corrected as soon as he/she had visual. It was fun, but not scary.

  5. Art Knight says:

    Does anyone know where this was filmed?

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=co6WMzDOh1o

  6. Eirik says:

    I think its a bit disrespectful, just leaving a note about the hurricane at the very end of the post.
    You know these islands have been hit extremely hard lately, and then to post this as a joyful experience to promote yourself as a first priority, its bad judgement, at best. Or bad timing. I didnt expect this.

  7. Vinnie Prim says:

    Patrick,
    I am a private pilot have been there several times. Always loved to see the KLM 747-400 land and take off. It is a BLAST. Was more concerned with the take off in case you had to abort with such a large powerful aircraft. But the landing according to the approach plate was so much longer than the usual 5 or so miles, like 4 times longer, you can’t even see the aircraft on most of the Final. The best You Tube videos of landing from the cockpit and the automated announcements, e.g. 100, 50, retard, etc. That is scary enough alone just hearing it in the comfort of your living room, just imagine being the PIC and hundreds of lives depend on you.
    Regards, Vinnie

  8. Mark Maslowski says:

    I thought the concerns about that airport were about the departure, not the approach.

  9. Alastair says:

    You surely don’t need to be an aviation expert to wonder about an landing aircraft being defined as ‘low-flying’. I mean, that’s kinda the point, isn’t it? Landing at 1000′ AGL would be a severe test of the undercarriage’s suspension…

  10. Jur says:

    Actually KLM was flying A332’s on the direct flight from AMS and TUI used B788’s. Recently though the old faithful 747’s have been making a comeback flying disaster relief flights via CUR. Even an A124 was dispatched from Eindhoven AB!

  11. lahmisc says:

    Its so sad what Irma did to the Caribbean islands. I’ve seen online videos of Skiathos in the Greek islands that look like a very similar setup – beach, road, runway, and very low flying landing planes.

  12. Dan Ullman says:

    Six or seven years ago I read an article about Maho. It used either that photo or one very much like it (i.e. professional). The article quoted an airline pilot saying that it had a short runway.

    The funny thing about it was the difference in prospective,reasonably, between the journalist and the pilot. The pilot defined “short” as mildly annoying and something that could use a couple of more 100 feet. The journalist defined “short” as barely within the stopping distance of a 747.

  13. Dick Waitt says:

    In some posted photos of that beach the top rail on the perimeter fence is shown to be bent – not severely but apparently the result of some sort of contact.

    Might this be the result of a short landing, or simply of spectators holding on tightly?

  14. Simon says:

    Spotting at Maho is cool, apart form the fact that there’s no more 744s there and even the Triple-7 is a rare charter. AF’s A340 is the only really big bird there nowadays (on a regular schedule). There is KLM’s Dreamliner which is of course a nice aircraft, but only medium size. The occasional 757 (DL, AA, and what used to be US Airways) is even smaller. There’s a lot of 737s of course, but well, meh. Insel Air shows up with old MD-80s which are neat because they’re so incredibly loud – noticeably more so than larger but more modern jets.

    Thanks, Patrick, for pointing out that all this “they come in extra low because of the spectators” and “it’s a super dangerous airport because of the low approach” is all just made up baloney. SXM is neither dangerous nor difficult to fly into. It *is* cool, but that’s because spotters can get so close to the runway. And of course because it’s Saint Marten which is just a really nice island (if you go to the right parts) in a very special corner of the world. While there you should take a Winair hop over to Saba. Now that is really special place. And the flight there, plus SAB airport, that is about as special as it gets.

    • Simon says:

      Come to think of it, from a piloting perspective it’s probably the departure at SXM that’s a bit more special. Most of the time you’ll depart away from the beach headed towards the mountains. So that involves a fairly brisk right turn to clear terrain after positive climb established. I imagine engine failure on T/O will be a more exciting procedure at SXM, as will missed approach. Definitely not “dangerous”, but I suppose more interesting than at let’s say AMS.

  15. Simon says:

    Judging by your photo, Patrick, you actually experienced Maho at its nicest. Other times of the year a lot of the sand gets washed out and there’s hardly any sand left between the exposed boulders. Those boulders can be seen in a lot of the SXM pics and videos people post.

    Regardless of what shape the beach is in, the plane spotting from Sunset Bar is still great (especially while chowing down on a “Pizza American Airlines”) of course. But the beach changes a lot with the seasons. The three times I’ve been there myself so far, it’s always been different.

    That said, if you want to go to a beach for the sake of the beach on Saint Martin, you don’t go to Maho anyway. Up to a couple of weeks ago I would have suggested checking out the GCBC’s beach in Grand Case (the French side is way nicer in terms of view and food anyway), but sadly that’s now all different. Irma has devastated Saint Martin and it breaks my heart to think of all of the friendly people on the island that now have only ruins left in what used to be paradise.

  16. Gene says:

    Maho beach, as a beach, is gone. Nothing left but cobbles, no sand at all. Getting blown away by jet blast now would likely cause serious injury.

    • James David Walley says:

      I’m assuming they’ll be trucking in sand and restoring it sometime after the more-important recovery is done. It’s a big tourist attraction, after all; plus, just leaving it in its current condition would be highly hazardous, given that people are going to be planespotting there regardless of the risks.